It seemed apropos that, on Groundhog Day, I’d post a picture of the first actress I had a crush on … oh, wait! What I mean to say is that I’d be asked to post an article on G+ about the challenges of writing time travel fiction. If you want to delve into this weird but amazingly fun genre (where you may indeed have a protagonist who looks like Lea Thompson) you need to know what you’re up against. What I’ve tried to do below is compile a list of issues the time travel writer needs to be aware of.
As with everything else in fiction, of course, the way to attract readers is through character. But this article doesn’t address character development; there are ample resources for that. Right now, we’ll stick to time-travel obstacles.
• Paradox Lost – You’ve got to come to grips with the notion of paradox. That means wrapping your mind around two conflicting ideas. My favorite time travel paradox, for example, is the one where the time traveler goes back in time and gives the blueprints for the time machine to his younger self. Thinking about cause and effect here requires some serious mental gymnastics, not to mention a tall glass of scotch. However, you really should avoid using this particular paradox in your story; it’s an overused cliche.
• Who’s Out to Get Your Hero? – You need to realize the villain of your story may well turn out to be the hero’s younger or older self.
• Timeline – Stephen King wrote a phenomenal time travel novel in 11/22/63. In order to do that yourself, you’re going to have to map out the timeline chronologically (ahem). So if you had a present-day time traveler going back to witness the events in Dealey Plaza, you’d need a timeline from 1963 till now. Otherwise things are going to be a tangled mess. Index cards work well for storyboarding such a plot, with each card representing a major aspect of the plot.
• Travel Agent Required – How does the hero travel? Via H.G. Wells steampunk machine? A spaceship? Gateway? Phone booth? Sports car? Magic? You need to decide. And once you decide you need to stick with it. Time travel is part of your setting. You wouldn’t have a creek flow uphill, so why would you have a time machine that worked inconsistently?
• The Left Behind – When your hero travels he’ll abandon friends and loved-ones. How does he feel about that? That’s nontrivial and potentially traumatic.
• Culture Shock – When Doctor Who’s Martha Jones (a woman of African descent) arrives in Shakespearean London she’s worried about getting sold into slavery. Think about that. Takes some of the romance out of the “good ol’ days,” doesn’t it?
• Cause and Effect – If the hero buys a ton of Apple Computer stock in 1999 will he really get rich? Or does his stock purchase affect Apple’s success?
• Think Out of the Box – Suppose the time machine is a simple door. What happens if the hero steps through using his cell phone? Does he still have coverage? That’s not as weird as it sounds. If he can see through the door (visible light) then cell phone signals (radio waves) can travel through it, too.
• Grandfather Paradox – Is the hero going to do something that keeps himself from being born? Suppose it involves murder. How does the hero cope with that? Murder is murder, in 2013 BC and 2013 CE.
• History Mystery – The hero wants to witness the Kennedy assassination. Great subject, but you better damn well know your subject. As the writer, can you tell us who the Babushka Lady was? Or what was on Dallas TV right before the news broke? Which motorcycle cop had his two-way radio on? What was the weather like? What’s the distance from the Book Depository to Kennedy’s car? What did the “Treason” leaflets say? What did the Manhattan businessman say about JFK’s killer?
• Action or Reaction – How does the hero react to witnessing a really brutal murder? The President, after all, had his brains blown out, literally. If you’ve ever seen the Zapruder film you know it was a grisly, ugly, and sickening sight. Now imagine being there, with the sights, the screams, the smells …
Time travel is not for the feint of heart.
In the next installment of “The Time Traveler’s Life” I’ll explore some of the pitfalls you need to avoid. And in a later chapter, I’ll recommend some books and movies. Stay tuned, same Chiroptera time, same Chiroptera channel!
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